SIEM REAP (Khmer Times) – The only foreigner on a bus headed to Surin, Thailand, Thomas Mclean recently struck up a conversation with the Cambodian man seated next to him.
Vann Lonh, an English-speaking tour guide, was accompanying his wife on the trip to Surin.
“Everyone on this bus is going to see a doctor,” Mr. Mclean remembers his seatmate telling him.
Armed with passports or border passes, western Cambodians now can travel 2.5 hours by bus to Thailand for medical care, passing through the O’Smach-Chong Chom border crossing 160 kilometers north of here.
Duk Chamnan recently relocated from Siem Reap to O’Smach to work for Angkor Mongkul Meanchey Company, which now offers a direct bus from Siem Reap to O’Smach. Tickets are $12.50 one way.
Ms. Duk’s goal is to facilitate “hospital tours” for Cambodians. She arranges transport to the Cambodian border and into Thailand and hires a translator to help Cambodians at the hospital.
Last weekend, Ms. Duk was in Siem Reap to promote the new bus service. Tour agents here had said they had not heard of buses plying this new route. But one, Chey Yarin, had seen local TV ads promoting medical treatment in Thailand. Opened to all nationalities in September, 2002 Cambodia’s O’Smach border crossing is still relatively quiet.
Cambodians line up with passports or border passes and 10,000 riel ($2.50). After crossing, they hop on a Thai minivan that, for 80 baht (50 cents), will take them the 45 minutes to Surin, a provincial capital with a population of 45,000.
The 10,000 riel goes to one of two Cambodians who fill out arrival and departure cards for people who cross into Thailand. Many people heading to the Thai hospitals cannot read or write.
In Surin, Khmer. is spoken widely The city has two hospitals, Surin Hospital and Ruampaet Hospital.
Cambodians traveling to Thailand for medical treatment cite lower costs and more trustworthy doctors. But, after the scandals this year of unlicensed doctors and clinics, it seems to be more about the trust than the money.
Although some people cross the O’Smach border crossing with temporary border passes, Duk’s company only facilitates hospital visits for Cambodians with valid passports, a bureaucratic step too expensive for many Cambodians.
For serious medical conditions, Cambodians travel to hospitals in Bangkok, where Khmer is less common.
“It may not even be that much cheaper than Cambodia,” Ms. Duk admits. “But I went there for a checkup last year, because I trust them more. It is scary to think that I could go [to a health clinic in Cambodia] with a fever, and be given the wrong medicine, which could make me sick or kill me.”
The success of this new bus line to the Thai border indicates that medical tourism is still strong for Cambodians, four decades after the Khmer Rouge killed most of the nation’s doctors.